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Noah Cowan, Toronto Film Fest Director, Dies at 55 – The Hollywood Reporter


Noah Cowan, a veteran film festival director and indie film specialty distributor, most recently with San Francisco International Film Festival, has died. He was 55.

Cowan passed away in Los Angeles on Jan. 25 after a battle with Glioblastoma multiforme that was first diagnosed in December 2021.

During a career that began in 1981 as a summer volunteer working in the box office at the Toronto International Film Festival, Cowan went on to be a veteran film festival programmer and director, a curator of visual art and film-related exhibitions, a film distribution executive and a journalist covering international film festivals and other events.

Born on July 22, 1967, in Hamilton, Ontario, Cowan was educated at Toronto’s Institute of Child Study and then the University of Toronto, before he completed a philosophy degree in Montreal in 1989. That same year, Cowan became a film programmer at TIFF, where he oversaw the Midnight Madness program of genre titles.

He went on to program films for Toronto from India and Japan during the early 1990s. As artistic director of Toronto, Cowan was responsible for the creative and artistic vision for the annual September festival and Bell Lightbox, TIFF’s year-round home.

During his tenure, he curated exhibitions and installations, including showcases of work by such diverse figures as David Cronenberg, Grace Kelly and visual artists Yang Fudong and Candice Breitz, as well as major retrospectives related to the history of Chinese cinema and the Indian superstar Raj Kapoor. He also was responsible for a large educational portfolio, including the TIFF Cinematheque, the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, several significant learning programs for students of all ages and large-scale collaborations between film and visual arts institutions around the world.

In 1993, Cowan launched Cowboy Pictures, an indie film distributor in New York City that supported first-time filmmakers. For two years, Cowboy programmed The Screening Room and collaborated with Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder label.

Cowan also served as Filmmaker magazine’s main festival correspondent and as a contributing editor. And in 2002, Cowan co-founded and worked as executive director of the Global Film Initiative in New York City, a not-for-profit organization aiming to promote cross-cultural understanding through film.

Cowan returned to Toronto in 2004 and until 2008 was co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival. Then, from 2008 to 2014 Cowan became artistic director of TIFF Bell Lightbox, working as a protégé under then TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling.

In 2014, Cowan left Canada again to become executive director of SFFILM in San Francisco, home of the San Francisco International Film Festival, a position he held for five years before moving to Los Angeles to launch a media consultancy company.

Cowan is survived by his husband, John O’Rourke,  parents Nuala FitzGerald Cowan and Edgar Cowan, and brothers Brian FitzGerald and Tim FitzGerald.

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